According to Ethnologue, Italian is ranked as the 21st most spoken language in the world. So even though there is a little more than 63 million native speakers, Italian is not as widespread a language as, for example, Japanese or Spanish.
That being said, Italian is still regarded as one of the most important languages in the world. Specifically, its cultural importance: Italian is a key language for opera, fine culinary cuisine, excellent wine, history, art, music, fashion, and design.
If you are studying Italian or looking to get started in learning Italian, there is a chance you might’ve missed a few interesting facts about the history of this fascinating language. In this article, I am here to provide you some interesting insights about the Italian language to peak your interest. Here are ten reasons you should start your Italian language journey -- today.
1) Italian roots in Latin
Italian comes from Latin, of course, but what type of Latin exactly? During the Roman times, there were mainly two kinds of Latin: the official form used in written texts and the “vulgar” (from “vulgo”) spoken form used mostly by commoners, such as: peasants and soldiers.
As such, the Italian language derives from the second type, which was the Latin that is more entrenched within culture and tradition. So, as an example, the Italian word for “head” is “testa”. Obviously, this word was not derived from the more formal Latin word of “caput” but from the vulgar Latin word of “testam”. This word was used to indicate crock vases.
2) Vulgar language
After the Roman Empire collapsed, vulgar Latin was exposed to other languages (Lombards, French, Goths), and were profoundly influenced by them. From this blend of languages between Latin and others, the Vulgar language rose, which came to be the “ancestor” of modern Italian. The first intellectual who promoted the Vulgar language as the natural development of Latin was Dante Alighieri. Dante, who in 1303, wrote the essay “De vulgari eloquentia (On Eloquence in the vernacular)”.
3) First Italian written text
The most ancient original text written in the Italian language is the Placito Capuano, a written verdict created in 960.
4) Numerous Italian dialects
In Italy, there are so many different dialects that it has been difficult for even the Treccani Encyclopedia to account for exactly the number of Italian dialects. Academics previously divided Italian into three main areas: the North, Central, and Southern areas. Linguists call “Italiano popolare” as the type of Italian spoken by people who consider their dialect as their first language -- and may have learned the national language incorrectly.
5) Territorial Italian languages
Apart from the numerous dialects that numbers around 40, there also exists Italian “territorial languages”, a kind of supersets. According to Ethnologue, the most spoken territorial language is Neapolitan, around 5.7 millions speakers. The second most spoken territorial language is Sicilian (4.7 millions speakers). Then follows: Venetian (3.8 millions speakers), Lombard (3.6 millions speakers), and Piedmontese (1.6 millions speakers).
6) Italian literacy
In 1861 when the Italian sovereignty was founded, a great majority of people were illiterate (around 80%); and only a marginal percentage of people had an education background higher than elementary schooling. Fast forward to a century later, in 1961, the illiteracy rate became less than 9%. Then, in 1971, there was less than 5% of illiterate people. And in 2017? Less than 0.5% of the people are illiterate, hurray!
7) Italian unity
According to academics, many factors helped Italy reach linguistic unity. Compulsory education is one factor, press and military service were two others. Immigration, bureaucracy, urbanization, as well as radio and television all contributed to the creation of a common sense of belonging to one national language. On a more somber note, war also helped to unite soldiers at the front lines through languages. This is because everyone had to understand one another when speaking standardized Italian -- and not their original dialect.
8) Academic Italian vs Spoken Italian
The Italian that most people will learn is called by linguists Standard Italian. That being said, Neo-standard Italian is the most common variety among Italian people. That's the everyday spoken Italian language which does not always follows grammar rules. In Neo-standard Italian, for example, the subjunctive mode is replaced by passato imperfetto for many of its practitioners.
9) Evolution of Italian
In 1964, the intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini theorized that the rise of a new Italian was to be characterized by a simpler syntax and consequently the loss of many Latin and technical terms.
According to Pasolini, this outcome was from the cultural supremacy of the new middle class of Northern Italy -- which also situated the biggest automotive factories of (Fiat, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, etc). Nowadays, some scholars claim that the evolution of new Italian theorized by Pasolini would echo the tendency to integrate more and more English terms.
10) English-influenced spoken Italian
Italianists are now more concerned for the declining fluency level spoken by newer generations. Since the newer generations in Italy have been more exposed and influenced by English. Some linguists use the term “Italiano selvaggio” (wild Italian) to refer to this tendency.
Thank you for taking the time to read and discover the intricacies of Italian. Hopefully, this article has given you impetus to learning such a culturally diverse language as Italian. Indeed, there are hurdles when learning any new language, but Italian is a language worth your time to be fluent in. Happy learning to all!